With all this talk or blogging about AI, Big Data, metrics and analytics, pricing protocols, KM, Six Sigma and Lean and Agile, I wonder if I am working in a manufacturing shop or a law firm. In the world of manufacturing widget A can be compared to widget B, the two widgets can be taken apart, reverse engineered, put under stress tests and compared one against the other down to their composite parts. But if you’ve ever done what I call the website practice description test, you will know that law firms all use eerily similar language, nuance and style to describe what they do and for whom they do it.  And yet, each law firm is unique, there is something that makes one firm embrace AI  or LMP while another will shy away from anything other than the billable hour.  What then is the *real* differentiating factor for law firms?  Culture. 

Culture is hard to define, dictionary.com says this of culture: “the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.” Firm culture then, in my opinion is what a firm or firm leadership regard as excellence in the practice and business of law.  For some firms, culture is about billing, billing, billing, the relentless pursuit of commercial success and heaps upon heaps of billable hours. Though arguably an outdated machine like model this type of firm culture does still exist.  It is the kind of caricature you would imagine law firms would take on in a Tim Burton movie.  Other law firm cultures are built on a solid foundation of the hierarchy, ruthless behavior and one up-man-ship.  This is the kind of culture that the Anonymous Lawyer  blog and book were predicated on and to some extent do still exist. Many of us are familiar with these firms either by experience, by anecdote or by TV portrayals.  Other firms are not firms at all but a loose collective of lawyers with a firm culture that resembles a start-up or a technology company – think foosball tables, Macbook docking stations and white open concept spaces – rather than mahogany, privacy partitions, and gleaming reception areas. 

Success or failure of the firms to be commercially successful, embrace or refute technology, encourage new management roles and processes is, in my mind all tied to culture.  One culture does not necessarily suggest success and the other failure but the ability of a firm to pursue its quality of excellence – however they define and measure it – rests solely on its ability to maintain its cultural balance in every interaction.  Little gestures such as ending emails with “Smiles” or “no response required” or offering clients use of a firm’s meeting spaces or larger firm discussions around collaboration, sharing of financial data within the firm or making use of the Cloud in technology initiatives each point to the culture of the firm and reinforce for partners, clients, staff and business partners what a firm ultimately privileges.  I have often wondered how it could be that laterals who were floundering at one firm move to another and are suddenly rainmakers or lauded as being the best of the best in the business or how one firm can implement a new software tool at a significant cost while others wouldn’t touch that same tool even it was free. The answer is of course “fit” or culture.  Unlike in manufacturing where the goods produced undergo strict quality assurance testing, is it the people who work in firms each and every day that offer up the defacto QA testing, turning ISO (certification) into IMHO. 

As bloggers, it is our job to bring you the latest and greatest (or not) in law firm trends, technology, professional development opportunities and just plain intellectual sparring.  But I hasten to remind readers that each and every firm or in house legal department has a unique culture or signature that will determine what may or may not work in your specific firm or within the context of your role.  The glint of the shiny new toy is always appealing, but may not perform well for the work you and your firm are trying to do.  Over time, cultures change. Big Data, AI and LMP may run the legal world one day, but in the mean time remember, sometimes, it the simplest methods, tried and true that are the best fit for your firm’s culture right now. 

Good enough.

Two words that are anathema to law firms.  After all, we produce perfect legal product. (cough, cough) We strive to eliminate risk for our clients, and especially for our firm, and as such, ‘good enough’ Is. Never. Good. Enough.  
I can’t and would never comment on whether a contract or agreement should be considered ‘good enough’. I would assume that no firm would ever accept, “Meh, it’s good enough”, when it comes to their legal product. But traditional legal products like contracts and agreements are, by their very nature, finished products.  They are essentially static and unchanged until they expire or are actively and deliberately supplanted by new contracts or new agreements.  That means that there is tremendous risk to the client and to the firm in not getting it ‘perfect’ at the time of delivery.
The problem comes when legal products leave the world of static documents behind and enter the world of software.  No software company in the history of the world has ever delivered a perfect product out of the gate.  They plan for bug fixes and schedule for upgrades.  Those of us in Legal IT are very familiar with Patch Tuesday. If you use an iProduct, you know that little red circle with a 1 above the settings icon that has been blinking at you for three months…? Yeah that one… that means you need to update your device ASAP. This is a way of life in the software world, users may be annoyed by it, but they expect it and most understand that these updates are meant to improve the user experience, or security, or give them additional functionality.  In fact a ‘perfect’ software that never updated would be highly suspect and most people would assume that it was derelict and no longer supported.
So how do we reconcile the traditional ‘strive for perfection up front’ approach to legal products with the reality of the software world?  We must embrace the beta.
Beta is the designation given to software which is still in development, but already deployed to at least a small community of end users.  Generally beta software is considered not yet ready for prime time, but still usable.  Google, one of the most innovative companies in the world, has taken the beta concept to new heights. Gmail was in beta for five years from 2004 to 2009.  By 2009, everyone’s grandmother had a beta Gmail account.  
Google isn’t charging for most of their products, so it’s easy for them to get away with the prolonged beta.  I’m not suggesting that we do the same, but I do think we need to learn to deliver admittedly imperfect software products, and systematically upgrade and improve those products over time.
Now, to be clear, I am not talking about compromising on the quality of legal output.  If you create a tool that outputs a standard contract for a client with your firm’s logo on top, it had better be a solid contract.  There is no compromise on that.  However, in most cases, the actual legal part of these types of tools is relatively minor and it’s the extraneous crap that holds up deployment.
If we can deliver a product with somewhat complicated navigation features next week, and it’s going to take 2 months to put a better navigation function in place, deliver the complicated navigation next week.  Explain to the client that this is a work in progress.  Show them screen shots of what is coming in the near future and give them a rough timeline.  Most importantly express how much you value their feedback, and appreciate their support during this beta development period.  And let them know that they are getting a deal on the pricing by participating in the beta.  Other clients coming later will pay the full price.
This is not rocket science.  This is software sales 101.  
With traditional legal documents, we do the legal work and hand them off to trained document specialists to format to the firms standard.  Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury when it comes to legal software.  When you’ve contracted development, or cobbled together multiple SaaS tools to create a new product, there is no specialist to hand it off to to make it conform to a firm standard.  There may not even be a firm standard to cover every new mechanism you’ve created, which means someone needs to make up the standard as you go.  
By embracing the beta, we can deliver functionality to clients as quickly as possible, and focus on continually upgrading and improving their experience over time.  I don’t know for sure, but if I was a client of a law firm, that’s what I would want.  And if the product provided the functionality that made my working life a little bit easier, I’d probably be willing to jump through a few hoops or look past the occasional formatting snafu, to get the product on my desk more quickly.  
That’s what software companies do by necessity.  And like it or not, law firms are, or soon will be, software companies.
[Image (CC) by xxrobot]

In last week’s Elephant Post, we asked what software you hated to use at work. So, this week we modified the question a bit and asked what software would you like to use at work, but for multiple reasons (most of which probably begin with the initials IT), cannot use.

The consistent answer was “something that makes my life easier.” Now, really, is that too much to ask for?? (Apparently, it is.)

Take a look at what the contributors had to offer, and if you didn’t have a chance to chime in with your favorite “non-authorized” software/hardware that you’d love to use at work.

Elaine Knecht
Smart Software

As my friend the software developer says… … I want to use the software that does what I MEAN instead of what I tell it do do!
Jennifer Stephens
Librarian & Geek
Movie editing software, MacBook Pro, iPad

Movie editing software – wouldn’t it be great to make short “how to” videos for new associates/summer associates?
MacBook Pro – lots of power, battery life, simple OS. My newer MBP also has Windows 7 installed inside of Fusion (virtualization software).
iPad – wouldn’t it be great to have a lightweight tablet to carry with me, to field reference questions or show services on the fly? I could go to the attorneys’ offices to say, “look at the new…” (No, I don’t own an iPad. Just two MacBook Pros, an iPod, and an iPhone 4.)
Cyndy M
Law Firm Marketing Technologist

The much ballyhooed “single Sign-on” concept was a unicorn, a myth.
With every application and website requiring a login, I need a handy way to automate the process. This tool manages my passwords, logins and form fields.  Thank you, Roboform.
Greg Lambert
Library/Records Guy
Something Google-Doc-ish

I’d love to have some type of collaborative software that works as well as Google Docs, but is securely behind the firewall of the firm. I’ve worked an a number of projects with external folks using Google Docs and found it to be amazing in getting everyone on the same page (literally) and usually while discussing it on a conference call, we’ve been able to get hours of work accomplished in a matter of minutes. If we had something behind the firewall, I could get those inside the organization to collaborate in an easy and SECURE way.
Megan Wiseman
Law Librarian

I admit my academic side is showing in this opinion but I felt I had to answer this week’s question after sharing my software woes last week.
In a nutshell: I miss having chat reference.
Currently I’d estimate that about half the emails I send back and forth and maybe a third of the calls I get regarding reference requests could easily be replaced by a quick IM.  I know of companies that use “chat” software to facilitate communication when e-mail is just plain overkill, so it is possible to roll something like this out in a corporate setting…  but I’m just not sure how well it would work in my firm.  I can see drawbacks and benefits productivity-wise as well as the problem of having one more piece of technology to fold into people’s work style.  But I miss not having to say “now can you spell that?” and being able to instead just copy and paste the name/citation/address/whatnot into my Google bar right from the chat window.
Saskia Mehlhorn
F&I Librarian

I think it is an excellent tool to bring training sessions  to the student and faculty (and anyone else who uses our website) so they can use it when they have a need for it and not just when we are physically available.
We could use it for all types of scenarios, going from “How to use the catalog” (followed after explaining to them that we actually do have a catalog), to the usage of the different databases, on how to perform legislative research up to international case search. The possibilities are endless.
Ryan McClead
Microblogging Software

“Email is where knowledge goes to die.”  – Bill French
I love this quote.  It makes me laugh and it’s true.  Taken together with another truism, Lawyers live in Outlook, you can begin to see the problem.  All of that work, all of the knowledge disappears along with the regular IT data purge.  I dream of persistent, searchable, conversations which can be copied, pasted, linked to and generally re-purposed indefinitely.  I dream of group project discussions continuing throughout the week, rather than only happening once a week for an hour.  I dream of real-time spontaneous collaborations.  I dream of a flattened organization where the newest, most junior member of the company can easily converse with the CEO/COO/CIO and everyone else can share in their joint discoveries.  It’s a lot to put on microblogging, but I think that’s a good place to start.

Next Week’s Elephant Post:

Tell us your favorite PowerPoint presentation story (good or bad… but, preferably bad!)

Toby’s post on not using PowerPoint in a recent presentation garnered a lot of comments and traffic this week. Therefore, we thought we’d give everyone an opportunity to talk about some of the presentations that they’ve seen or given and what you’ve learned from that experience. Did you give too much information on the slide? Did an old version of your presentation get saved to your thumb drive? Or better yet, a completely different presentation? Go ahead and give us the dirt on what went wrong… or if you nailed a presentation because of PowerPoint, let us know that as well.

We go to work… we log on to our computers… we open up our standard software… then we shake our heads at how bad that software is, or how we really wish we could use something (anything!) other than this program. So, that was our question for you this week, what do you have to use, that you really wish you didn’t. We received a number of different perspectives this week, from old legacy programs to server-based software that just doesn’t quite understand what we need to accomplish in our day-to-day operations.

Enjoy the contributions, and scroll down below them to see next week’s Elephant Post. If you enjoy reading other perspectives, then chime in with your own (it’s easy!!) In fact, next week’s question is almost the opposite of this week’s. “What Software Do You Wish You COULD Use At Work?”

Megan Wiseman
Law Librarian

First off: my firm’s version of DBText is a leftover dinosaur from the mid-nineties.  Yes: di-no-saur.  Those who came before me merely kept it going … honestly I have no idea what the situation was: whether they looked for alternatives/updates or not.  Perhaps there was no buy-in from others regarding change.  And, yes, technically it works.  We’re only using it as a catalogue which means the pressure to make a change is relatively low.
However, as a librarian, I am in the business of making information available, and our current setup effectively hides the catalogue from anyone except myself and my library assistant – talk about a terrible practice of information control!
But this isn’t merely a “boy, have I got a bad piece of software” rant.  As I have said, the program is good and does what it promised.  In the 90s I am sure this was a great idea, but then, I didn’t even have internet at home until around that time.  Putting it in perspective, I would do better having a card catalogue in the library: at least my patrons could use it!  Luckily, I have the option to change as long as I can cut through all the red tape.  Currently, I am looking into open source options – something our tech person is being very supportive on, despite the scary lack of documentation and details some open source software provide.  It’s amazing how many little things can get in the way of choosing Koha or Evergreen…migration work aside.  So I guess I may have answered my question after all regarding why we’ve never changed this piece of software.  (Kudos to tech people everywhere!)

John Hafen
Microsoft Outlook

Outlook is both the most crucial and most despised piece of software in my practice. I am in it all day. But it is slow, bloated and constantly freezes (even after my recent computer upgrade).
Three simple improvements would vastly improve my Outlook experience: more speed, less freeze and better search functionality.

George Carter
Word, Windows

WordPerfect is a  much better word processor and Ubuntu is much better than Windows.  I want Google to put key strokes as WordPerfect’s Alt-F7, Shift-F7, etc and reveal codes into its Docs.  Word is not for people who want to type starting with a blank document.

David Whelan
Information Pro
Lotus Notes

Lotus Notes is my work  e-mail client and, because e-mail is a primary communication and organization tool for me, Notes 8.5 is a negative drag on my productivity.  I know it’s not an e-mail program, it’s a database.  But that’s no reason for it to offer the promise of e-mail management only to pull the carpet out, laughing, providing fewer features than Google Mail when it was in beta.  To be fair, how software is implemented across an enterprise, which may block or break features that are available, is part of the problem.  We have not fully implemented the latest version because it requires more powerful hardware than our PCs have.  Even the Web version(s -I am offered 3 interfaces when I log in, none of which offer the same suite of functions nor work in all browsers) are substandard, although at least they remove the hardware issues.
How bad?  Threaded messages often show the wrong messages in the threads, wrong topic, wrong senders/recipients.  If you sort by the subject line of messages, messages with “re:” or “fw:” are sorted by R or F, respectively, not the real subject line.  Some columns (like sender name) do not always sort, so you can scroll down sender names and find names out of alpha order.   It’s not even that Lotus Notes is worse than Microsoft Outlook/Exchange.  It’s that Notes isn’t even as good as free e-mail clients like Thunderbird or Google Mail.  E-mail is such a cornerstone tool that when the e-mail client negatively impacts productivity, it should be tossed.


Until recently, my company had been on IE6, the biggest piece of garbage software I have ever used.  It rendered half the webpages properly. Just horrible.

K DeLia
Lotus Notes

Enough just saying the name – no need to elaborate! I think we can all agree Outlook is a better corporate email system. While Lotus Notes, claims more security from hackers, etc., the sluggishness and multiple crashes are trying. Further, creating content management systems and centralized repositories in databases is just passé…

Ayelette Robinson
Knowledge Management

I have two bones to pick with SharePoint: (1) it’s not user-friendly, and (2) it purports to be user-friendly. The first reason wouldn’t be so bad if it was marketed as a tool for the technology-fluent. But the first reason in combination with the second really gets my goat. I know there are good enterprise and industry reasons to use SharePoint, but the trials and tribulations we all go through to get it to do what we want just doesn’t seem right.

Stacey Burke
Blackberry Email on Phone

Our firm does not have a Blackerry Enterprise Server therefore my emails are routed through some *place* online and dump a few at a time every 5 minutes or so.  I get them WAY too late.  The partners have mostly switched to iPhone and they get emails on their pda’s before their desktops sometimes.  I simply cannot let go of the tactile Blackerry keypad so I have to keep it.  Yet each time I step away from my desk, even to travel down the hall to the main scanner, I know I am missing or experiencing an unnecessary delay on email web submissions from my sites.  It irks me.  We just upgraded to a 2010 Outlook Exchange Server.  I am told by our outsourced IT that it will impact our pda’s but not what that means.  I wish I may, I wish I might that it might make my Blackerry emails more instant. I doubt it.  Rant over.

Toby Brown

Based on some internal applications, I need to use IE7 daily.  Separately I run Chrome.  Watching these two browsers side-by-side was quite revealing.  IE7 is significantly slower and sometimes chokes on websites, etc.  One time I was having a problem with an internal app running in IE7, so on a whim I tried it in Chrome.  It worked fine there.
I assume upgrading to the newest version of IE would help alleviate some of this.  But then we would have compatibility problems with some of our apps.  And I recall hearing in the not-so-distant past how the next IE would no longer be slow and cumbersome.  So count me as a skeptic that upgrades are the answer.
So I suppose the real answer to the IE problem is: Chrome.

John Nann

Well, it’s really a tie between IE, Outlook, and Word.  Why? Let’s see: slow, clunky, slow, limiting, slow, susceptible to crashing, slow, susceptible to crashing, slow, constraining, and, let’s see, yes, they’re a little slow…

Kingsley Martin
Attorney & Software Developer
Security by hidden trick / Software that imports data easily, but makes it hard to extract

As a software developer, I should probably not throw stones. But, in this case, I’ll throw caution to the wind and offer a couple of bricks.

  1. Security by hidden trick. NT is known for its enhanced security. It’s frequently more of an enhanced waste of time. True security is not a matter of undisclosed tricks. For example, turning off wireless networking by default in Windows Server 2008—and without notification—simply wastes time. Selectively disabling javascript functions appears to be an example of the security maxim: “for your added protection, we haven’t told you that we disabled some javascript functions. Once you’ve discovered this nifty disabling feature, next guess which function calls we hobbled.” Fun for all the network engineers!
  2. Software that imports data easily, but makes it hard to extract. One of the most important principles of technology is that information has a longer live span than applications. Legal forms, for example,  can date back 100’s of years and will likely be handled by numerous successive applications making switching costs one of the most important considerations when choosing technology. A good example of this is Adobe PDF. Of course, you can’t place the entire blame on Adobe: who in their right mind creates an electronic document, prints it, signs it, and then scans it: without preserving the original electronic file! Companies are going to make millions OCR’ing these documents back into machine-readable form. This principle also has a cautionary lesson for law firms considering SharePoint. Each of the applications being built on the SharePoint platform will likely capture information that will be later be ported to some successor—perhaps cloud-based—app. Hopefully, this is not a case of déjà Lotus Notes all over again.

Next Week’s Elephant Post:

What Software (or Hardware) Do You Wish You COULD Use At Work?

We’ve listed out a number of things that we hate to use this week, so we thought we’d turn the issue upside down and see what software, hardware, devices, etc. that you’d love to be able to use at work. I’m still trying to think of a really good reason to have NetFlix streamed to my work desktop, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a sustainable business reason… However, I do love using Chrome as my web browser and would love to be able to take advantage of some of the extensions that are offered on it or FireFox without my IT group coming down on me like a ton of bricks.

How about you? Got something you use at home, or have “unofficially” installed on your desktop? What makes it so useful that you think that IT should look the other way when they come to fix something on your computer?

As always, we put the form right here for you to fill out, but you can also:

Have you heard of Mint.com? If you haven’t, its an online budgeting tool that tracks your accounts, loans, investments and assets online. I have been testing it out to see how well it rides for personal use. Then I got to wondering about how it would work for a virtual law office. Owned by Intuit, the same company that runs TurboTax, you can count on it for privacy, security and good sense (little pun there …). With its account notifications, transaction lists, budgeting capabilities and trending information, I think it is a natural fit. One of my favorite features is the trending information. The site grabs an entire month’s transactions, which has been categorized for you, and creates either a pie chart or a columned-graph to show you where your money’s gone. The transactions list works like an online check register. Mint.com makes an intuitive guess as to how a transaction should be categorized–it is pretty good. But sometimes it is way off.
A good example is when I bought concert tickets from the Toyota Center. Mint.com categorized the ticket purchase as an auto expense (Toyota) when it more accurately should have been categorized as an entertainment expense.
If you don’t like how a line item is categorized, it is easy to change to pre-set categories or to a custom category. You can also split a transaction like you can on Quicken and other finance software; for instance, if you wrote a check to your printer, you can split amount into half towards your non-profit work and the other half to your business.
You can also indicate that a transaction should be flagged for tax purposes. Plus, since it is an Intuit product, you know it will dove-tail nicely with Turbo Tax. But the last and, coolest feature of Mint.com are the e-mail notifications. I love these! Mint.com will give you a heads up when you are getting within a certain percent of spending your budget in any given category, when you are over-budget in a category, when a deposit shows up. Sometimes it lags by about 24 hours but it is still a really nice feature. And with the budgeting tool, you can set up any type of budget for continuing education, business travel, etc. So, although the site is intended for personal use, I think the site would be perfectly adaptable for business purposes.
Just think, if you have PayPal, Mint.com and TurboTax all working together you may never have to step foot into a bank again.
That in itself is worth the price.
By the way, did I mention Mint.com was free?